Mental Health and IBD: Coping with Stress and Flare-ups

mental health and ibd

Having a lifelong condition like IBD is extremely challenging. As well as managing physical symptoms, there are many emotional consequences that can impact how well you cope with the disease.

By learning to care for your mental health, you can become more resilient to the stresses brought on by IBD and in turn lower your risk of flare-ups.

Here we share how to support your recovery by understanding the impacts of stress and becoming more resilient.

How IBD impacts the body and mind

IBD, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease, is a chronic condition that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. This can be extremely painful and cause many physical symptoms:

  • Severe pain and cramping
  • Bloody stools
  • Fatigue 
  • Joint pain
  • Diarrhea 
  • Loss of appetite

IBD flare-ups can often be sudden. They can happen at inconvenient times or when you least expect it, leading to feelings of overwhelm, stress, and shame. You may also experience the various stages of grief after diagnosis including denial, bargaining, and depression.

Those with IBD have a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression, while prolonged stress can triple the risk of flare-ups. It’s therefore incredibly important to stay in tune with your emotional health and learn to manage both physical and psychological symptoms.

How to care for your mental health to support IBD recovery

It can be hard to stick to your treatment plan if you feel down and unmotivated. So make sure to understand how to spot signs of stress and what to do next.

What do we mean by stress?

Everyone has a different perception of what stress is and what triggers their stress response. For some, it could be an important work call while for others it can be the thought of a flare-up happening in the future. 

While it can be difficult to identify what stress and anxiety look like to you, there are common symptoms:

  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Dissociation and shutting down
  • Panic and fear
  • Feeling a lack of control

These emotions can also overlap with depression often characterized by low mood, feelings of hopelessness, or in severe cases, thoughts of suicide. If you have any of these symptoms please contact 1-800-273-8255.

How stress affects your body and the risk of a flare-up

There are a number of psychological and physiological changes that happen in our bodies when we are stressed, each of which contributes to IBD flare-ups. 

We also know that long-term perceived stress can actually triple our risk of IBD flare! Here is how it works below.

Your brain becomes hyperactive

The amygdala part of the brain is responsible for emotions such as fear and aggression. During stress, this area becomes hyperactive and can lead to exaggerated responses and reactions.

Continuous stress can also impact the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that is responsible for decision-making and judgment. When in a state of fight or flight, this makes it harder for us to think clearly, make appropriate decisions, and cope with flare-ups.

Disruption to the gastrointestinal tract

If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach or felt nauseous before an interview, you’ll have experienced the gut’s sensitivity to emotion. This is because the gut and brain are physically connected and communicate with each other through the vagus nerve.

When you feel disconnected, anxious or stressed, the brain sends signals to the gut resulting in disruption to your gastrointestinal tract known as dysbiosis. When this happens, your gut’s bacteria becomes unbalanced, often resulting in a sense of urgency (needing the toilet quickly) or slowing down (such as constipation). 

High c-reactive protein (CRP)

When we experience stress longer term, we tend to see higher inflammatory markers, one of which is c-reactive protein (CRP). Produced by the liver, high levels of CRP indicate inflammation in the body.

Each of these factors can disrupt your digestive tract and gut bacteria, which if not controlled can affect how well you respond to treatments and your risk of flares.

How to be more stress-resilient

While stress can’t be avoided, there are various ways you can train your mind to become more resilient and comfortable with triggering situations. 

  1. Accept your stresses – it’s normal to want to ignore any signs of stress or pretend it’s not happening. However the more you resist, the more it will persist! If you ignore symptoms and internalize your stress, it will only get stronger and cause more intense flare-ups in the long run. It’s much healthier to embrace what you are feeling and accept what is happening to your body. Take deep breaths and calmly check in with yourself.
  2. Adapt how you perceive stress – many of us have experienced the feeling of being stressed… because we are stressed! Break this vicious cycle by reframing your thoughts in a positive light. Instead of worrying that your heart rate has increased, consider how it shows your body’s strength. 
  3. Find your stress reliever – from walking and meditation to journaling or dancing to your favorite music… there are plenty of therapeutic ways to destress. Find yours and make time for enjoyment each day to help release those psychological and physiological symptoms.

How to cope with IBD flares through support

The number one way to cope with flare-ups and discomfort is to get support. When we feel accepted, understood, and loved our brain releases oxytocin. Sometimes known as ‘the love hormone’, it plays a significant role in regulating stress responses and reducing our blood pressure.

A hug automatically releases a boost of oxytocin – but you don’t need physical support to benefit from this stress-relieving hormone.

Start by talking to people who understand what you are going through. There are plenty of support groups where those with IBD can share experiences and relate to one another. Being heard is the first step to feeling supported.

Therapy is also extremely beneficial to support those with IBD. It can help you to deal with stress and emotions but also to find the words to explain what you are going through to others. You could also share our guide to supporting a loved one with IBD with friends and family to help them understand your disease.

Lastly, remember to accept help from your loved ones. You can’t think about decision-making in the same way when your body is in pain or stressed. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask for practical support.

Get support with your IBD and mental health

Living with IBD can be difficult, but there is a wealth of support that can help you from groups and resources to expert professionals.

As specialists in IBD, the Crohn’s and Colitis Dietitians team are here for you. Our personal experiences with the disease mean we know first-hand the impact it can have on the body and mind – and our nutritional therapy can help you with both.

Contact our team today and get the support you deserve.

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